If you’re unhappy and you know it... the eight principles of pleasure

The Behavioural Insights Team that specialises in trying to alter people’s behaviour through the power of suggestion – has a new theory: money can buy happiness

1. Buy experiences instead of things

Because humans adapt quickly to new conditions, the psychologists say, the pleasure derived from a new possession has a short lifespan. But experiences can be enjoyable in the moment, and leave memories that are a source of happiness for a long time. "After devoting days to selecting the perfect hardwood floor for a new condo," the authors write, "homebuyers find their once beloved floors quickly become nothing more than unnoticed ground beneath their feet. In contrast, a memory of seeing a baby cheetah at dawn on an African safari continues to provide delight."

2 Help others instead of yourself

Pointing out that "human beings are the most social animals on the planet", psychologists cite numerous studies show that people who do more "pro-social spending", such as buying gifts and donating to charity, tend to be happier. Does being selfless provide the key to happiness? Well, no. "Spending money on a friend or romantic partner… provides an opportunity for positive self-presentation, which has been shown to produce benefits for mood. Giving to charity may facilitate the development of such positive self-presentation as well." In other words, give money, but make sure people know about it.

3. Buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones

"Happiness," our psychologists claim, "is more strongly associated with the frequency than the intensity of people's positive affective experiences." We are therefore advised to spend our money on series of little treats – a fancy meal, a weekend break, tickets to a concert – rather than blowing it all on a sports car and plasma screen.

4. Buy less insurance

While mankind's insatiable adaptability means he gets easily bored of new toys, it does have the benefit that he copes well when things go wrong. Therefore, the psychologists claim, spending obscene sums on extended warranties and insurance policies can be a waste of money – we should instead rely on our innate, primal coping strategies when a something conks out. "Consumers often buy with future regret in mind," the article's authors write. "Little do they know that their brains have already come equipped with an unhappiness-reducing mechanism that they can use for free."

5. Pay now and consume later

Delayed gratification is a source of "free happiness" that not only ensures our new purchases give us pleasure for longer, but also stops us from buying things on the spur of the moment that will end up making us unhappy, the psychologists say. Indeed anticipating the cork popping out of that vintage bottle of wine may be even more pleasurable than drinking it. On top of that, if we dissociate ourselves from the idea that something, once bought, must be used or consumed immediately, we are apparently less likely to, say, buy a kebab to sate a fleeting desire for stodge – thus avoiding the unhappy aftermath of our impulsiveness. We will instead be programmed to expect gratification of our urges further down the line.

6. Think about what you're not thinking about

One of the psychologists' less intuitive offerings involves thinking about the negatives in order to be happy. Their theory is that if we think about new purchases – be they a television, car or holiday – within the context of mundane reality, we may realise that they are not the route to happiness they may have seemed. The psychologists cite a study of Canadians, a majority of whom "dream of owning a vacation home preferably by a lake" and listing "peace and quiet, access to fishing and boating, and sunset vistas" as part of the appeal. However, if consumers were to think of the unhappy potential side effects – "from the mosquitoes buzzing just outside, to the late night calls about a plumbing disaster" they would be less inclined to spend on something that could lead to misery.

7. Beware of comparison shopping

Bad news for Russian meerkats: our brains our apparently hardwired to respond badly to comparison websites. "Comparison shopping," psychologists say, "may distract consumers from attributes of a product that will be important for their happiness, focusing their attention instead on attributes that distinguish the available options." In other words we are better off going with our instincts and seeking out the things that suit us. If you think it looks pretty, it's the one for you.

8. Follow the herd instead of your head

Humans, we are reminded again, are social creatures. Therefore the best way to know whether we are going to derive pleasure from something, is to see whether others have done the same. Apparently strangers to modern theories that suggest that different people sometimes enjoy different things, the psychologists that Downing Street's "Nudge Unit" are so keen for us all to follow, suggest that reading user ratings on websites is a sure fire way to pick the best films, gadgets, cars and holidays. Other people are also good at judging our inner feelings about potential purchases "because they can see the nonverbal reactions that may escape our own notice".

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